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Ethnicity in Novels

irishdanceshoesHappy St. Patrick’s Day to you all! I’m a proud half-Irish American, and so of course I’m wearing green today. (I debated green shoes for this post, but the ones above go better with the real reason behind my writing, as you’ll see below.)

We often talk a lot about ethnicity in novels, and how to correctly represent a racial perspective as writers. But besides wanting to read more amazing novels with non-Caucasian protagonists, I’d also love to see more novels where ethnicity — of whatever stripe — plays a part. To illustrate, a story about me.

When I went to high school, one of my best friends was a girl named Roseleen. We used to vacation together on spring breaks, down to Florida where her parents had a house, or up to Block Island. The youngest of four, with a rather sizable gap between her older brothers and sister and herself, both of Roseleen’s parents were Irish. Not Irish-American, like my mom, but emigrants from Ireland. Besides all the normal teen stuff she did, she also took Irish dance lessons (see the shoes above), and knew how to play the Irish harp.

To me, she always had such a strong connection to her heritage and showed it.

On a day like today, I feel particularly Irish myself. I know my Irish ancestors going back several generations — Delaneys and Currans and O’Connors and such — and proudly boasted on Twitter this morning that I have over 20 hours of Irish music in my iTunes library. I know how to make corned beef and soda bread, can do a passable jig, and know a few words of Irish to sprinkle into conversation. It’s not as strong a connection as Roseleen, but it means something to me.

So here’s my question to you: When you create your characters, do you think about where they come from? How does their heritage, their culture, their religion color their experience? If they’re just generic mutts, why? Was that a choice, or the lack of one? What does their background mean to them? (Bear in mind that “nothing” is an answer, but again, only if that’s the choice you made.)

I look forward to reading your comments!

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